Unnaturally obsessed with bicycles

Flann O'Brien

The Third Policeman, by Irish writer Flann O’Brien (or Brian O’Nolan, who wrote under pseudonyms partly because of his work as an Irish civil servant), is certainly a strange book, and as Terry Eagleton points out, the strangeness of the events within are somewhat at odds with the tone of the writing. The book begins with the narrator mentioning in almost off-hand fashion how he killed an old man for his money, and it is the way the tone rubs up against the absurd happenings that enhances the humour.

In a convoluted plot, after seeing the old man’s ghost (or something of that sort) the lead character (who has forgotten his name) goes to a police station to ask the police to search for a lost gold watch (which doesn’t exist), but he is then held for the murder of the old man, not because the police suspect he did it, but because he just happens to be at the police station and it is convenient to arrest him. These policeman are unnaturally obsessed with bicycles and believe that long hours riding a bicycle will result in the intermingling of human atoms and bicycle atoms so that long-term riders will be half-bicycle, and bicycles half-human. (You can tell when a rider is half-bicycle because, amongst other things, they simply fall over if they are not moving.)

This classic of twentieth century modernist fiction is also notable for the narrator’s copious explorations of the philosophy of a certain (fictitious) de Selby, complete with page references to his books, and references to the commentaries of various de Selby scholars. The Third Policeman therefore takes its place in a line-up of works of fiction featuring the elaborate histories of books that don’t actually exist, such as Borges’ “The Library of Babel”. O’Brien’s de Selby has some notable theories, including the idea that what we experience as blackness at night is actually fine particles of pollution in the air and that what we experience as sleep is actually fainting brought on by the pollution. He has various theories about roads, and warns that heading east on a road heading west can only cause trouble. He also suggests, quite sensibly I think, that there are not four directions in the world, as heading straight in any of these directions will eventually only bring one back to one’s starting point, and that there is therefore only one direction. For reasons perhaps a little obscure, de Selby reasons furthermore that the earth is sausage-shaped.

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